The Digital Bog: Technology, Energy, and the Mediation of Irish peatlands

Patrick Brodie, School of Information and Communication Studies, University College Dublin

patrick.brodie@ucd.ie / Twitter: @patbrodie337

Peat boglands in Ireland, long exploited as a carbon fuel source or “reclaimed” for agriculture via drainage, store enormous amounts of soil carbon and represent one of Ireland’s most extensive, culturally distinct, and biodiverse landscapes. Unsurprisingly, they have become a site of vibrant controversy and debate around the landed politics of decarbonisation. This project situates the resource and conservation landscape of Ireland’s peat boglands within their emerging role in datafied “green” revolutions. Emphasising the stakes of land, resources, and technologies within green transitions, this ongoing project draws upon historical, policy, and discourse analysis to theorise the “digital bog” as an emerging site of tech-based climate solutionism. In doing so, I offer a pre-history and a framework for understanding resource landscapes in so-called “post-extractive” contexts where networked forms of extraction are innovated through public/private technoscientific research. In an emerging research and innovation landscape within which digital tech intersects with “green” development, this project identifies the real and metaphoric ecosystemic interactions between science, technology, geologies, atmospheres, and cultures.  I theorise the “digital bog” as a way of understanding the networking of landscapes and ecosystems within technological transformations across history.

Across history, Irish boglands have been situated within different cultural imaginaries and projects of colonial and state mediation. Their extent (20% of Ireland’s landmass) and material properties (waterlogged, treacherous to cross, ability to preserve organic matter, biodiverse) have variously been observed for their sanctity and inaccessibility as well as their often conflicting status as wilderness, fuel for households, fuel for the nation, material archive, biodiversity stronghold, or commons (e.g. Feehan et al. 2008; Gladwin 2016).

The Irish Free State, established as a dominion of Britain in the early-1920s after a long revolutionary period, inherited ways of seeing Irish peatlands as “wastelands” in need of “improvement” (Ruuskanen 2018), drawing upon colonial maps to learn how to develop them for large-scale industry like agriculture and energy. Through Bord na Móna (BnM), a semi-state organisation formerly in charge of peat extraction and today re-branded as a “climate solutions” provider, these rationalities fuelled national electrification and modernisation through large-scale extraction and burning of “turf” in power plants. At the height of their industrial heyday, Ireland’s midland raised bogs and some western blanket bogs were effectively strip-mined for the commercial harvesting of peat. Today, as the image below depicts, these “post-extractive” landscapes represent a “modern” wasteland, exhausted by large-scale industry and requiring similarly scaled interventions to ecologically restore them or make them valuable for new industrial activities (see Bresnihan and Brodie 2023b).

Figure 1. A cutaway, “post-extractive” peat bog landscape in the Irish Midlands, with decommissioned industrial train track in foreground and quarrying activity in far background. Photo by author

Today, and in tension with these intersecting legacies, the most visible projects on BnM’s peatlands remain in the energy sector, transferring industrial-scale carbon to renewable energy in their rebranding as a “climate solutions” company in 2021. Most multinational wind farms on the island are built on or adjacent to bog habitats, as these historical “wastelands” must be made profitable somehow. In planned “Energy Parks,” BnM will facilitate circular sites on which interlocking infrastructures of data centres (huge energy users), renewable energy, and battery storage will be administered by private multinational companies on “post-extractive” peatlands (Bresnihan and Brodie 2023a). However, similar to prior forms of development, most of these activities require that bogs remain drained, or even necessitate significant further drainage and reclamation for football-field sized concrete and metal foundations for 100+ metre-high wind turbines.

Peatlands are an efficient carbon store when left intact, but when disrupted – for example, through large-scale drainage for development – they emit carbon reserves into the atmosphere, reversing their “natural” function as carbon sinks. While performing what can be promoted as large-scale climate action on the one hand in the form of renewable energy, they completely undermine sequestration and offsetting goals on the other, and have led to highly publicised environmental catastrophes such as peatslides, in at least one case tied directly to tech multinationals like Amazon Web Services and the energy requirements of their data centre facilities in Dublin (see Brodie 2023b). The devil’s bargain of ongoing development at-scale to rapidly decarbonise, primarily funded by energy multinationals and climate finance firms, reinforces the irreconcilable contradictions of growth and environmental justice through Irish development policy (Bresnihan and Brodie forthcoming).

As has been typical, these contradictions are being studied and managed by state-funded technoscience seeking ways to turn the boggy Irish landscape into profit in ways that fulfil, on the surface at least, both climate goals and economic growth objectives. The Irish state and its corporate partners are thus searching for ways to optimise carbon storage value via “smart” technological solutions including remote-sensing, aerial radiometry, machine-learning, drone imaging, and other digital solutions for dissecting their elemental consistency. Outside of the university sector in particular, Ireland has been a leader in “smart” technologies and infrastructures by facilitating digital multinationals since the 1980s-1990s. Microsoft and Intel have both publicised research projects co-funded by state institutions to make legible the bogs and their carbon and water storage potentials (Bresnihan and Brodie 2023a). However, the comparatively “dumb” media of muddy peatlands, as Shannon Mattern describes the role of dried mud in early human communication (2017), presents a historical and present challenge for productive forces and economic development. As media theorist John Durham Peters has famously articulated, media constitute more than the devices we use to communicate. Theorising what he calls “elemental media”, or “the elements that lie at the taken-for-granted base of our habits and habitat” (2015, 2), he argues that the foundational “natural” elements of networks organise life and nature in increasingly cloudy ways. Until recently, “media” more frequently referred to earth systems than communicative technologies (2015, 2), such as peat soils’ ability to act as a “medium” for growing, carbon cycles, water cycles, or other ecosystemic processes. As states and corporations look to “net-zero” carbon accounting, bogs are taking on increasingly strategic value as carbon sinks for emissions offsetting, mediating particular value relations and becoming sites of digital media processing to render their muddy ecologies legible for various types of “green” profitability.

As some have expanded and critiqued the elemental media framework (Furuhata 2022; Jue and Ruiz 2021), the “elemental” must also account for the entanglement of the “material and semiotic” (Jue and Ruiz 2021) within violent regimes of material accumulation  A critical analysis of elemental media, including the complex mediating capacity of peat, requires intersectional analyses including material histories of colonial capitalism and the material violence often enacted through the semiotic functions of technoscientific territory and resource-making. The growing dissection of peat boglands via digital media and sensing technologies, along with other carbon sequestering landscapes such as forests (Gabrys 2020), points to the ways in which media grafts onto and supports developmental epistemologies inherited from imperial formations apparently extinct in this particular landscape.

The proliferating networks of sensors, measuring devices, machine-learning systems, and digital imaging of the bogs, comprehensively dissecting their geological, hydrological, and atmospheric processes and interactions, demonstrates the entanglement of cloud-enabled digital technology with the material futures of landscapes during climate change (see Gabrys 2020; Goldstein and Nost 2022). The development of Ireland’s multinational tech infrastructures in the form of proliferating data centres is inextricable from the reorganisation of the island’s material landscapes during decarbonisation, as data centres are shaping the energy system and tech companies are increasingly interested in carbon offsets and ecosystem services (see Bresnihan and Brodie 2023a). Technological mediation is a vital representative tool for the transformation of land into value for climate solutions, survey devices for a coming peatland “green grab” (Fairhead et al. 2012), and within this, we need to conceptualise and map the extensivity of digital infrastructural relations in order to understand the intensification of their models of value extraction across different land and resource politics (Brodie 2023a). In the landscape of so-called “post-extraction,” the bogs are rapidly becoming zones of technological “measurementality” (Gabrys 2016), wherein more-than-human ecologies are instrumentalised to offset the ongoing planetary emissions of capitalist enterprise elsewhere. Once a landscape of colonial carbon-based subsistence and postcolonial carbon-fueled modernity, peat boglands, through these modes of measurement and offsetting, are becoming increasingly entangled with imperialist endeavours across different but alarmingly familiar networks of planetary inequality.

References

Bresnihan, Patrick and Patrick Brodie. 2023a. “Data Sinks, Carbon Services: Waste, Storage, and Energy Cultures on Ireland’s Peat Bogs.” New Media and Society, vol. 25, no. 2: 361-383.

Bresnihan, Patrick and Patrick Brodie. 2023b. “Waste, Improvement, and Repair on Ireland’s Peat Bogs.” Ecological Reparation: Repair, Remediation and Resurgence in Social and Environmental Conflict, edited by Dimitris Papadopoulos, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, and Maddalena Tacchetti. Bristol University Press.

Bresnihan, Patrick and Patrick Brodie. Forthcoming. “From Toxic Industries to Green Extractivism: Rural Environmental Struggles, Multinational Corporations and Ireland’s Postcolonial Ecological Regime.” Irish Studies Review.

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